Wot, still no distillery visits? Let’s pretend it’s 2016 again, when one was allowed to meet up with a bunch of whisky loving reprobates and swan around Speyside in a minibus – it can only be Whisky Lounge on Tour!
Before an illuminating visit to the Speyside Cooperage [WLP], we are shown [extensively] around Glenfiddich, the Grant’s family-owned distillery that officially began distilling on Christmas Day, 1887. Grant’s, as Roy Duff loves to remind us, is one of the ‘big four’ – “that is, Grant’s Diageo, Edrington, and Pernod Ricard”.
Glenfiddich receives 100 tonnes of grain a day – that’s four lorry loads. Though a seemingly calm & tranquil area, you can get a sense of the scale of the whisky industry in Speyside if you find a nice spot on the A95 and watch grain lorries as well as draff pickup trucks, cask drops and the like, going to and from depots, farms, warehouses and the numerous distilleries in the area. A good spot for this is at Tormore [below].
At the time of our visit, Glenfiddich was [and still is] in the process of increasing it’s production capability, meaning Tomatin [WLP] was to lose its long-standing record as biggest distillery by [potential] capacity. Up until 2016, Glenfiddich had been in a friendly arms race with Glenlivet [WLP], until they – Glenlivet – vastly expanded their production capacity to 21 mlpa. With Macallan’s expansions taking them to 15mlpa, that currently makes Glenfiddich Scotland’s third-largest [single malt] distillery [13.7 mlpa], ahead of Ailsa Bay at 12 [mlpa] – also owned by Grant’s
The current master blender for Glenfiddich and William Grant’s is Brian Kinsman who is ‘,…. responsible for the blending operation of the entire group, including Tullamore DEW, Kininvie, Monkey Shoulder and its most recent portfolio addition, Ailsa Bay‘. [SW]
Even a backstage tour can’t escape the obligatory distillery video which includes such flannel bombs as ‘age-old, time-aged,….’ and, ahh ‘,.. the Robbie-Dhu Spring‘, for example. Whisky-wise, aside from the odd exception, Glenfiddich’s current range is accompanied by age statements, so at least we are spared a ‘flavour-driven’/NAS sales pitch for a [not new] practise that was in its frenzied ascension at the time.
Our instructive tour with Fergus Simpson begins. Nearly five years on, I now think of it as a revision session. Back then, it was rather a new language. As a near-novice, this is what I noted at the time:
LAUTER TUN TYPES
- Manual: rake and grab [Glenturret]
- Semi-lauter: fixed vertical teeth that go round and round [Raasay, Lindores]
- Full-lauter [of which Glenfiddich have two]: rotating blades that go round & round and up & down.
Further reading: scottishdelight.com
UNDERBACKS: are another part of the cooling phase but also, says Fergus, tells the brewer the wort level once it’s fallen below the draff line.
SPARG: The third [and/or final] mash is also the hottest of the mashes. The heat from this mash is retained for the start of the next batch.
[The importance of] HEAT EXCHANGERS: If you let the wort cool naturally, you’re inviting bacteria and rot.
WASHBACKS: Glenfiddich has 32 Douglas Fir washbacks that are jet steam cleaned. We are told that after a while, the bacteria that collects in the gaps are so deep-set, replacement is necessary as required cleaning standards become impossible.
- Longer fermentation = Less esters, more fruitiness
- Shorter fermentation = More nuttiness, more maltiness
- Direct-fire heating
- The 11 wash stills are twice as large as the 20 spirit stills.
- Cut points: 40 mins for the heads with a small 8-9% cut over 2-2.5 hours
- As part of the cleaning/maintanence process, scraping pot ale from the bottom of the stills inadvertently lifts copper off, imparting BBQ savoury notes in the spirit. Further reading: whiskymag
- Stills generally last between 10-15 years when the thickness of the copper wall is down to around 50%.
Before being allowed into Glenfiddich’s famous Warehouse no.1, we are instructed to leave all our belongings in a small room before we enter: bags, keys, coats, phones, cameras, and even pens! I note that all down whilst strolling into the warehouse with a biro. Sheesh, I’m told off! There’s something about Fergus that makes me want to play up. It turns out he was a teacher for many years.
Glenfiddich’s Solera Vat holds around 38,000 litres of spirit. It was first filled in 1998 with 15yo+ whisky, and continues to be filled with whisky with a minimum age of 15 years.
We take turns ‘walking the dog’, a rite of passage for all whisky enthusiasts.
Regarding the blackened plants and shrubbery that look like they barely survived a forest fire, we are told it’s a fungus that thrives on the large CO2 levels emitted into the air by the whisky-making process. Further reading:
flaviar.com ‘Baudoinia compniacensis is a sac fungus which resides in the vicinity of distilleries, spirits maturation facilities, bonded warehouses, and large bakeries. It is known by many common names including distillery fungus, distilleries’ shadow, whiskey fungus, angels’ share fungus, and warehouse staining fungus‘.
We enter another, less regulated, dimly-lit warehouse where pens are now permitted. Fergus tells us there are 1 million casks on-site held in 47 warehouses! He shows us how to tell the difference between sherry & bourbon casks from the ends alone, useful when looking for sherry casks in dark & dingy unlit warehouses. As a general rule, bourbon casks have a shallower taper whereas sherry butts have thicker ends.
We are led through the visitors centre and upstairs to Brain Kingsman’s blending room. I wish I could remember more about this part of the tour, but a lot happened in a short space of time. What I do remember is the calibre of the whisky we had to blend with – grains which were fabulously rich and oily at around 20-30 years of age, the malts between 12-14. Years later, and without taking any notes, I shared the blend I’d created this day with the Foz. All I recall is it was rich and fresh if slightly uneventful, the abv carrying it above the calibre of Glenfiddich’s standard range,..of which we are to try next. What a morning!
We end up in one of Glenfiddich’s corporate tasting rooms to try a number of expressions from Glenfiddich’s core range.
- N: We may be looking for [SW] ‘light, estery, pear and apple-accented‘ notes, but it’s the honeyed barley profile that stands out, notable in three of the first four of this flight. This one is on the youthful side of 15 years with apple pie [a clearly detected note in Glenfiddich’s wash], cream soda, and some spiciness – perhaps from the [new] wood ‘finishing’ that comprises 10% of the whole mix. The rest is comprised of [non-finished] 70% bourbon and 20% sherry refill-matured whisky.
- T: A light spicy dry malt, again, surprisingly youthful for a 15yo. A little water is preferable.
- F: A ‘beer/wash-like finish’ is all I noted.
- C: Under-powered – a common thread with this flight – so there’s no need to blow away the ethanol from the top of these glasses. Overall, good juice if lacking spark.
Scores 83 points
- N: Same as the 15yo but,… older, duh! Nothing gets past me! This batch of the ‘standard’ 18yo is made up from 80% bourbon and 20% sherry casks and is spared a ‘new wood’ finishing. Character-wise, this one speaks of fruity caramelised sugars and some malty fudge.
- T: With further ageing, it’s gone [bone-dry] drier with less spiciness compared to the 15yo.
- F: With sweet-bitter chocolate notes, I find this softer/more composed/more understated than the 15yo, and – also at 40% – a little flat.
- C: This is good old enjoyable stuff, though what it gains with those extra three years in oak and oakiness, it loses in vitality [more abv grumbles].
Scores 82 points
Glenfiddich 21yo [+/-2016] Ob. Gran Reserva [rum casks] batch #27 40% [WB]85.59
Fergus goes into some detail about how meticulously put together this 21yo is, but alas, I can’t keep up with the info. It’s been a long morning.
- N: Initially smelling [rightfully] older than the first two, it soon appears more youthful/vibrant as it opens up. Raisins-forward with some toffee, tropical notes, stewed ginger sweets, I’d say the rum cask influence [on knowing] is evident but unassuming.
- T: I can’t say I detect the rum influence too much on the palate. For me, this works better than the standard 18yo. With more tropical floral notes, spicy dry malt, fudge-putty, some desirable dryness,…. a sustaining hum follows,..
- F: ,….. and follows,… It’s a hummer, woody and sweet into Murray Mints, a little hot chocolate,.. chocolate coffee liqueurs,..
- C: Enjoyable [and fresh 21yo] whisky where the rum influence is discernible yet unobtrusive [even more abv grumbles].
Scores 84 points
There is a flavour-driven malt in Glenfiddich’s line-up after all. It’s a brave soul who places this NAS expression [also presented at 40%] after the 15, 18 and 21yo. Recreated by Brian Kingsman with help from Hamish Robertson’s recipe book, comes this single malt inspired by the ‘Straight Malt’ style of 1963, the year Glenfiddich began international exports of whisky after the war.
- N: Yeasty, spirit-led with,.. Bombay Mix [really],.. is all I noted at the time.
- T: Distillate-led on the whole, with fruity vanillas, this is really easy to like. Despite being [perhaps 7 years] young, it’s not without some complexity either, which is required when you’re asking £85 [July 2016] for a NAS whisky.
- F: Some crisp light oils, some minerality,.. and other things. ‘Need more time’ is the last thing I noted. Is that ‘I needed more time’, or ‘it wants more time’, I wonder?
- C: This presentation reminds us that NAS isn’t new, merely [and very suddenly] far more prevalent – and pricey. As Serge says ‘,… the NAS issues are not about quality, they’re about transparency and prices‘.
Scores 82 points
Now in the visitors centre, we all assemble around the visitors cask and watch Eddie fill a bottle for the dramming table.
Made from a mix of bourbon, sherry and new wood-matured stocks, here are my initial impressions at the time:
- C: Certainly there’s activate wood over subtle sherry, though it smells cask-balanced enough. Honeyed caramel, full-bodied, rich, less astringent though with similar fruitiness [apple etc,.] as the standard Glenfiddich 12yo, good travel, decent length finish.
Scores +/-85 provisional points at the distillery. Having a proper chance to try it later on around the [Whisky Lounge] dramming table, I find it thus:
- N: Adding water promotes the lemon citrus qualities, but it’s a swampy blend-like start overall.
- T: It really needs water but then doesn’t hold up when diluted, becoming spirity, sugary, and tangy.
- F: Idiosyncratic of the Speyside style, it becomes more a putty-malt by the tail.
- C: Tasting fabulous at the distillery, but far more innocuous in what one might call more conducive conditions over the next few days.
Scores 82 points
Glenfiddich is a must-see distillery. Why? Because its popularity makes it a very significant part of the whisky landscape. And then there’s the provenance – ‘the first whisky to be marketed as single malt in the UK and the rest of the world’ [Whisky Year Book 2021], for example.
With thanks to Fergus and Whisky Lounge. Fergus will appear again on our travels again at Balvenie the next day [WLP].